Gunther Schuller : Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, composed during 1987 and early 1988, is in four movements in contrasting slow – fast – slow – fast alternation. The last two movements, linked together by a Cadenza for the solo quartet, are played without interruption. The concerto begins with a soft orchestral introduction featuring quietly undulating woodwind and muted brass figures. The solo string quartet enters almost imperceptively, at first blending in with the prevailing wind textures but gradually emerging into a leading role. The solo quartet takes full command in the middle section of the movement, an energetic con moto. A series of majestic brass figures leads eventually to a recapitulation of the introductory mood, only performed now in reverse order.
The quest mood of the first movement’s coda is shattered by a boisterous Scherzo, played at breakneck speed, with the quartet firmly in the lead.
Chorale-like horns and trombones, accompanied by soft percussion (vibraphone, marimba, cymbals, tamtams) and harp and piano, set the essentially lyric mood of the third movement, marked “Quietly flowing”. In a series of stanzas (as in a narrative poem), three of the four solo quartet instruments answer in turn the thrice-reiterated horns’ statement, echoed in ethereal high-register melismas by the respective soloist’s three colleagues. Schematically this sequence can be rendered as follows:
First stanza: horns—viola solo—2 violins/cello response;
Second stanza: horns—cello solo—2 violins/viola response;
Third stanza: horns—2. violin solo—violin/viola, cello response;
Fourth stanza: full orchestra—full string quartet (in unison)—high woodwinds response.
A solo sequence for the string quartet (unaccompanied) leads directly into the Finale, an Allegro molto in perpetual motion (of sixteenths). It also features each of the four soloists of the quartet—this time the first violin is not left out—in a bravura passage of leaping double-stop figures. The orchestra eventually takes over this material in a climactic reiteration in trombones and tuba of the main theme. Trilled interjections by the string quartet bring about a gradual calming of both tempo and dynamics to what augurs to be a quiet ending. But it is a deceptive: a final burst of energy brings the work to a sudden—and, I think, humorous—close.
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra:
I. Lento misterioso
II. Scherzo – Vivace
III. Quietly flowing
IV. Allegro molto
(Movements III and IV are played without interruption.)
Schuller is a master of orchestration and his concerto is filled with ingenious use of evocative soundstwitterings, murmurings, and stormy outburstssounds that can be appreciated for the moods they produce.
The work also succeeds in doing some things few composers have even tried to do and none succeeding so well as Schullernamely, treating the string quartet as a group of soloists, allowing the four players to interact as a quartet and still keeping the group from merging into the orchestral string sections.
Travis Rivers, Spokesman-Review, 13/08/1991